A senior world health official has warned that countries are essentially driving blind in reopening their economies without setting up strong contact tracing to beat flare-ups of coronavirus.
The warning came as France and Belgium emerged from lockdowns, the Netherlands sent children back to school, and a number of US states continued to lift business restrictions.
Fears of infection spikes in countries that have loosened up have been borne out in recent days in Germany, where new clusters were linked to three slaughterhouses; in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the crisis started; and in South Korea, where a single nightclub customer was linked to 85 new cases.
Authorities have warned that the scourge could come back with a vengeance without widespread testing and tracing of infected people’s contacts with others.
Health officials in the US will be watching closely in coming days for any resurgence of the virus two weeks after states began gradually reopening, and efforts to assemble contact-tracing teams are under way there and in Europe.
The World Health Organisation’s emergencies chief Michael Ryan said robust contact tracing adopted by Germany and South Korea provide hope that those countries can detect and stop clusters before they get out of control.
But he said the same is not true of other countries exiting lockdowns, declining to name specific countries.
“Shutting your eyes and trying to drive through this blind is about as silly an equation as I’ve seen,” Dr Ryan said. “And I’m really concerned that certain countries are setting themselves up for some seriously blind driving over the next few months.”
More than 10,000 people are involved in contact tracing in Germany, a country of 83 million.
Other countries are behind. The UK abandoned an initial contact-tracing effort in March when the virus’s rapid spread made it impossible, but now it is recruiting 18,000 people to do the legwork of tracking contacts.
France’s health minister has for weeks promised robust contact tracing and pledged the country would test 700,000 people per week.
On Monday, with progress on those efforts unclear, the nation’s highest court ordered the government to take extreme care in protecting the right to privacy, casting doubt on how to proceed.
US states and European countries are also developing contact-tracing mobile phone apps that can show whether someone has crossed paths with an infected person.
In loosening up the lockdown, German authorities have spelled out a specific level of infection that could lead to the reimposition of restrictions in local areas. Other countries — and US states — have been vague about what would be enough to trigger another clampdown.
The US has seen 1.3 million confirmed infections and about 80,000 deaths, the most in the world by far, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Worldwide, 4 million people have been reported infected and more than 280,000 have died, over 150,000 of them in Europe.
With Monday’s partial reopening in France, crowds formed at some Paris metro stations, but the city’s notorious traffic jams were absent. Only half the stores on the Champs-Elysees were open.
In South Korea, the government clamped down again, halting school reopenings planned for this week and reimposing restrictions on nightclubs and bars.
It is trying to track down 5,500 patrons of a Seoul nightlife district through credit card transactions, mobile phone records and security footage.
Roughly half of Spain’s 47 million people shifted into looser restrictions, beginning to socialise, shop in small stores and sit outdoors at restaurants, although its biggest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, remained under lockdown.